More Secret Tabernacle Rescue Squad Deals, Little Detail On Public Safety Ordinance

Untitled 2The Tabernacle Committee continues to stumble over centralizing the delivery and management of emergency services, which was its stated reason for dissolving the fire district. The actual reason was the committee’s need to use the district’s money to plug a hole in its own budget. The committee’s dissolution of the fire district and its grant of the exclusive franchise for insurance billing to the Tabernacle Rescue Squad have increased conflicts, disorganization and general unfairness.

The committee has been talking about an emergency services plan for five years or more. At its July 24, 2017 meeting, it introduced an ordinance (Ordinance 2017-7) to create a department of public safety and a position for a public safety director. It was tabled because it was impossibly vague about the handling of the insurance billing, and a lot of other issues too, such as the qualifications and duties of the public safety director.

At its September 11, meeting, the committee introduced a very similar ordinance (Ordinance 2017-9). Mayor Lee let the public see it three minutes before the meeting started.

The essential issue in both ordinances is how to handle the insurance billing revenues that are produced by ambulance services. These are roughly $250,000 – $300,000 annually. But the TRS refuses to release it’s monthly billing statements, and the township committee refuses to demand them. So the public is prevented from knowing the actual amount.

Because of the way the committee allowed the TRS to do the billings, all of the insurance billing revenue goes to the TRS. In addition, the TRS receives extensive public subsidies from the township, such as additional cash payments, free rent, free fuel and free insurance. All of this funding has allowed TRS to generate surplus while taxpayers paid increased taxes. A fair allocation of the billing revenues and the subsidies for this supposedly independent company is the crux of the matter.

The committee’s premise that Tabernacle needs a public safety director to straighten out emergency services is all wrong. A public safety director can’t cure the committee’s long-standing favoritism towards the TRS. Committee members have to change their own behavior.

The ordinance also fails to clarify how the insurance billing revenues will be handled. At the September 11, meeting, Township Attorney Peter Lange reported that Ordinance 2017-9, didn’t change anything regarding insurance billing revenues. So the second ordinance still contains the vague language that caused the committee to table the first ordinance.

The committee doesn’t know what it wants to do. Its indecision pervades the ordinance. The ordinance is a blurry, generalized concept instead of a clear, well thought-out plan. It should be rejected.

What’s needed is a properly drawn, fair contract with a qualified EMS provider.

If you watch the video of the September 11, meeting, which I strongly recommend, you’ll see why the committee hasn’t developed a fair and effective plan to centralize emergency services. One reason is that committee members can’t or refuse to think through the issues. Another reason is that some committee members don’t seem to be able to overcome the boneheaded favoritism that has caused so many bad decisions.

Here are a few of the most pertinent comments by committee members and others that were made at the September 11, meeting, along with my comments. Remember, no one’s saying that the TRS’s technical operations aren’t solid. The issue is how to handle the insurance billing revenues and the public subsidies.

1. The committee still has no plan how to handle the insurance billings.

At the July 24, township meeting, Committeewoman Kim Brown rightly voiced the concern that the ordinance was vague about how the insurance revenues would get from the TRS to the township. Was this to be a voluntary transfer or something else? At that time, Mayor Lee answered with an equally vague comment about a partnership. They agreed to meet later to clarify the handling of  the billing revenues.

At the September 11, township meeting, after Committeewoman Brown and Mayor Lee had ample time to update everyone on their meeting, Deputy Mayor Yates spoke up.

I understand that yourself [Mayor Lee] and Kim met, can you tell us what transpired?

His questions about the Lee/Brown meeting were the most pertinent questions of the night.

Neither Committeewoman Brown nor Mayor Lee answered. They gave an awkward prolonged version of “You go first.” “No, you go first.” “No, you go first.” Eventually, Deputy Mayor Yates implored, “Somebody please speak!”

Ms. Brown tersely evaded the question.

We met. We haven’t come to a conclusion as to where we are, really, where we’re at. We had one meeting, Thursday.

Deputy Mayor Yates had to follow up again. “What was presented?”

Committeewoman Brown, again, said very little. “It was just a discussion to get started.”

In reply to Ms. Brown’s uninformative “report,” Mayor Lee launched into a long, convoluted statement that eventually described the “concept” for insurance billing revenues. None of this is specified in the ordinance.

The concept that we had was that the income from the fire company, income from the line item on the budget would go into a pool, and the income that came from the billing revenue would go into the same pool, and what would happen was that the pool of money would be used to fund emergency services across the board, whether it be fire, whether it be EMS, whether it be OEM or whatever…but what happens is that pool, for lack of a better term, is facilitated through the public safety coordinator, and the public safety coordinator and the chiefs of both departments…the squad and fire company are the ones that are making the long term decisions in terms of what the  emergency service needs are. So the township committee is essentially out of the equation, which they ought to be in my opinion….

First, the committee can’t and shouldn’t ever be “out of the equation.” It’s the chief executive of the township. Committee members can’t offload spending decisions and they shouldn’t give rubber stamp approval, particularly for emergency services issues.

Second, none of this “conceptual” process is laid out in the ordinance.

Third, there’s still no answer to the question: How does the committee intend to get the billing revenues from the TRS? Attorney Peter Lange reported that the township could get it’s own medicare billing number “overnight.” At the July 24, meeting, Mayor Lee said that it was impossible to get a billing number because of the Obama administration. Is the committee going to get a number and hire an outside vendor to do the billing, which is what TRS and everybody else does? Or does the committee have another procedure in mind? Based on the ordinance, it appears that they have nothing in mind.

2. The committee must overcome its favoritism towards the TRS.

Committee members take pride in expressing their support for both the fire company and the TRS. But it’s been obvious for a long time that the TRS is their favorite. This favoritism has a sordid backstory of secret deals and agreements. It’s exactly as Fire Chief Dave Smith said, and as everyone else can see, “It seems like in this township everything revolves around the Squad.” Hiring a public safety director can’t change that.

There are so many examples where the committee acted secretly with the TRS or gave the TRS a special benefit or privilege, or didn’t require the TRS to provide information that’s basic to the public management of emergency services.

  • The committee gave TRS the exclusive franchise to insurance billings. It did this surreptitiously, off agenda, after an executive session.
  • The committee allowed TRS to hide its insurance revenues from the public by accepting private “chalkboard presentations” from the TRS in order for the committee to perform its legally required financial review of the billings.
  • Although the TRS insists that it’s a private organization, the committee gives it cash contributions, free rent, free fuel, free insurance, etc..
  • The Committee looked the other way when questions were repeatedly asked about the TRS’s contract with Shamong to provide free ambulance service for Shamong residents.
  • The committee ignored the TRS’s bid to provide service to Southampton Township and never questioned how it would impact service in Tabernacle.
  • The committee hasn’t required the TRS to explain or to provide any information on the TRS’s compensation plan, even though Mayor Lee requested it.
  • The committee doesn’t require the TRS to provide its roster as it does the fire company, Community Emergency Response Team and Local Emergency Planning Committee. But the committee allows the TRS to hide its roster in the township’s Emergency Operations Plan.

After all of these known instances of preferential treatment, it should be no surprise that there’s still more. At the September 11, meeting, Committeewoman Brown announced, and Township Attorney Peter Lange confirmed, that the committee made a deal with the TRS that it wouldn’t charge them rent for the new Emergency Services Building (ESB).

That’s the building that residents built for emergency services at a public cost of $4,000,000. Our bond payments are about $200,000 annually. To my knowledge, the free rent deal was never discussed in public. It was a backroom deal.

In exchange for free rent, the committee accepted the TRS’s 60-year old EMS building on Hawkins Road (across from the fire house) on a property that the TRS said doesn’t meet Pinelands regulations and is limited by wetlands. The building is a decrepit money-pit that the Township uses for occasional community meetings. These could better located at the middle school, which has more parking, is better lit and much more comfortable.

Here’s what was said at the September 11, meeting.

Kim Brown: I’m a little upset because you [Township attorney Peter Lange] were part of the conversation when we took the property away from the squad and we told the squad we weren’t going to charge them rent; and you just threw out there that we should charge them rent; sitting there knowing that we would not….

Peter Lange: I didn’t throw it out there that you shouldn’t charge them rent; I didn’t say that; I threw it out there that that’s an issue out there;

Kim Brown: I’m just saying that I have a problem with that because I was part of the committee that sat here that said, give us your building we paid a dollar for it and we won’t charge you rent [for the ESB]; they also pushed to get that building past when everybody in the room knows that, I’m not saying anything that’s not true, they worked to get that building past, and now here we are years later we’re going to kick em in the teeth and go back on our word, I can’t do that.

Ms. Brown (and the committee) is such a staunch ally of the TRS that she’s lost her perspective. The backroom, free-rent deal with the TRS was dishonorable, possibly unethical and possibly illegal. The transaction doesn’t become any cleaner if she keeps her word about it. The deal certainly isn’t an official Tabernacle Township commitment.

Committeewoman Brown is so deep into TRS that she’s unable to see these issues fairly or objectively. Where’s her concern for the citizens of Tabernacle who are getting kicked in the teeth with every tax increase that’s not offset by the billing revenues? Where’s her concern that the decision to give free rent to the TRS should be discussed in public rather than behind closed doors? It’s nowhere.

The long-term result of the committee’s favoritism towards the TRS has been corrosive and divisive. The committee’s relationship with TRS should be no different than it’s relationship with the fire company or any other service provider.

After four years of operation, it’s now obvious that the insurance billing program is successful and generates substantial revenues. The committee has an obligation to re-examine all of its funding to the TRS and craft a new plan that treats the taxpayers fairly. Charging rent to a private organization that generates substantial revenue through a township franchise is common sense.

3. Some committee members are lost in minor issues or hiding in them.

The committee is bogged down on secondary and tertiary details. For example, they’ve spent a lot of time discussing the prohibition of tobacco use at township buildings and background checks. These are legitimate issues, but they are basic provisions that are usually addressed in a contract.

They’ve also spent an inordinate amount of time discussing whether the ordinance should refer to the emergency service providers generically or specifically or both. Stuart Brooks had recommended that the ordinance refer to the organizations generically so that if the providers should change, as happened with the fire company, the township wouldn’t have the expense of revising the ordinance. Here’s how Township Attorney Peter Lange described that issue.

I did reference specifically in the ordinance the Tabernacle Rescue Squad  and the fire ompany, TFC NO 1. I can easily add language that would say or any other entity that’s duly organized and providing services in Tabernacle Township and so you wouldn’t necessarily by ordinance have to use those, so that’s probably a good suggestion….

That’s a fine solution. The committee should’ve accepted it and moved on.

But that’s not what the committee did. Instead, Mayor Lee tried to curry favor with the emergency service providers by asking them about their “comfort level” on this minor issue. A long discussion followed.

This is question out to Chief Smith…and Chief Jackson; is there a comfort level with the two organizations. My question is, does the rescue squad and the fire company have more of a comfort level if they’re named in this ordinance? I guess my personal opinion is that we want to continue the relationship with both organizations, so my question to you is, is there more of a comfort level for both organizations, not knowing that your named in here specifically in the ordinance?

The committee’s professionals tried to keep them focused on the billing issues. But, aside from Committeewoman Brown’s admission of the backroom rent deal and Deputy Mayor Yates’s questions about the Lee/Brown meeting, the committee didn’t discuss the TRS revenues.

Here’s Colonel Lowe, the head of the township’s Office of Emergency Management, trying to re-focus the committee on funding.

The concern was your focus is on smoking, and there’s other issues out there that are much more important, but you detailed smoking; and then you left it off of OEM…but my point was that we focused on something like that, and there’s other issues, whether it’s the qualifications for the public safety director or the funding thing; the funding thing is really, really, really critical to this whole issue….

Here’s Township Attorney Peter Lange also trying to keep the committee focused on the funding. This was a long statement that’s worth listening to on the video.

I think you guys are talking but you’re not necessarily talking about the same thing all the time…Everybody loves the town. Everybody who comes to these meetings, everybody constantly for years is looking for a way forward here, in view of competing demand for the asset; and what’s happened here is the squad’s success has created a revenue stream that didn’t otherwise exist, they want to maintain it and keep it; and the township wants to spread it to the benefit of everybody who provides it because it’s kind of a franchise,…the real question is what you want to do with that revenue stream.

People want to focus on the technicalities, and say we can do this, we can’t do that cause it’s not legal [ as stated by Committeewoman Brown]; the question is not what’s legal, you can fashion any type of structure that you want that could be legal….You want to hang up on the legalities as opposed to getting to the real structure and hammering out what exactly you want to have going forward because it clearly is possible.

4. Some committee members still don’t grasp the scope of the insurance revenues or are still trying to hide that information from the public.

The committee has a legal obligation to review the insurance billings every year to make sure that the township’s cash contribution reasonably approximates the unpaid billings. The fulfillment of this obligation gave committee members a chance to see how the billing program, which was a new venture, actually performed.

The committee should’ve seen that the cash contributions were a sweetheart deal for the TRS because the committee committed to giving them $70,000 annually for the first three years. In actuality, the amount of unpaid billings was only about $30,000 annually. Taxpayers paid about $40,000 extra annually to the TRS for three years.

My point is that the committee knew how much revenue the insurance billing program was producing every year and how successful the billing program was.

For years, I’ve called on the committee to make the billing records public so we all could have this information. They wouldn’t. And, of course, the TRS wouldn’t either. They say they’re private and don’t have to provide the information.

Because the committee has always had access to this information, it was a surprise to hear Mayor Lee ask Chief Jackson how much money they make.

Are we talking about a substantial amount of cash, George?

It was also surprising to hear Committeeman Franzen say that he didn’t know either.

I think with respect to this whole idea of billing, we continue to talk with the squad about what can be done with money for emergency services; we’ll buy something for the fire company. I don’t know, I think that’s the direction to go in. I don’t think we’re talking about 100s of 1000s of dollars here. I think it’s, perhaps, $100,000. I’m just guessing, [it’s not] like we’re talking a big goldmine here.

The Committee has spent the past five years saying that they want to create responsible policy and an administrative framework that is effective and fair. They didn’t literally use those words. But that’s how they should be thinking about it.

By now, the entire committee and all residents of Tabernacle should know how much money we’re talking about. We should have copies of the monthly billing receipts. We should have a spreadsheet of costs of all of Tabernacle’s annual subsidies to the TRS. Without this information there can’t be a fair plan.

Instead, they seem to be jumping to a conclusion that if only the TRS would give back X amount of money then we’d have a plan. This is a typical way of dealing with a favorite.

6. It’s time for the committee and the TRS to “fish or cut bait.”

For the committee, it’s pretty clear that they want the TRS to continue to be Tabernacle’s EMS provider. Mayor Lee said so himself.

I guess my personal opinion is that we want to continue the relationship with both organizations [fire and TRS].

So it seems unlikely that the committee would request proposals from other qualified providers. That would be a rational way to explore options for the handling of insurance billings and subsidies.

The committee has had plenty of time to survey other townships to see how they handle EMS insurance billings. Some of the questions at the September 11, meeting were directed at Tabernacle resident Kathy Burger, who is also the Medford Township Manager and Municipal Clerk. In Medford, the township does the insurance billing (through a vendor as they all do) and the money goes into the general fund. A broader survey that looks at other townships would also have been a rational approach.

Instead, without doing any research, the Mayor seems poised to contract directly with the TRS.

One of the first things to do, if not before the ordinance is even passed, I [Mayor Lee] want to get a contract finalized with the ambulance company.

If a contract is one of the first things to do, why has the committee spent so much time and money on these two, unfocused ordinances regarding a public safety department and public safety director?

Here’s some advice.

  • Remember that you serve the public, not the TRS.
  • Discuss your ideas publicly before you even put pencil to paper.
  • Give the public real opportunities to comment as you develop your ideas, not when you’ve fallen so deeply in love with them that you won’t change them.
  • Abandon the secret deals and promises you made to the TRS. They’re not binding, they’re bad policy and they’re insulting to the residents who pay your salaries.
  • Treat the TRS with the same respect that you give every other provider, but not more.
  • Commit to developing a contract that’s fair and can be effectively managed.

The choice for the TRS is how closely they want to insist on their legal status as a private organization. Chief Jackson said at the September 11, meeting that the TRS is actually Tabernacle Rescue Squad, Inc. and Tabernacle Rescue Squad Inc. holds the medicare license and the state license. Chief George Jackson is the owner of Tabernacle Rescue Squad, Inc..

Certainly, Chief Jackson can stand on the TRS’s legal status and have it addressed as a private entity. Then it would be about the same as any other private EMS provider and it could contract with townships as it pleases using its own equipment.

But in its relationship with Tabernacle Township, the TRS doesn’t function as a private entity. It’s dependent on our public grant of the exclusive franchise to do insurance billing. It’s also dependent on our public subsidies for rent, fuel, insurance and cash payments, etc..

The TRS needs to make up its mind what it is. It can’t logically insist on its privacy and independence as Tabernacle Rescue Squad, Inc. while simultaneously building up its budget surplus through its receipt of public tax dollars and its manipulation of Tabernacle’s committee.

The relationship between the township and the TRS needs to be changed. It must include transparency and fairness to the taxpayers.

The next township meeting will be September 25, 2017, at 7:30 pm at town hall.